So here we are again. The massive marketing assault signals the return of Bond to our cinemas – this time in the form of Spectre. Cue box-office records and sycophantic reviews (if I hear the term “uproariously entertaining” one more time….)
On the face of it the line-up was promising – who better to follow up Javier Bardem’s creepy malevolence in Skyfall than Christoph Waltz (Inglourious Basterds, Django Unchained) who takes on the role of Blofeld, the head of criminal organisation SPECTRE. The film begins with Bond on an unauthorised mission in Mexico City - a hit goes wrong and 007 falls into a collapsing building. For me, this was as good as it got and although it kept me interested throughout, it didn’t engage me like good cinema should.
But what did I expect?
As long as we get explosions, gorgeous women, ridiculous stunts, a vodka martini, the world saved, we should be happy because this is the essence of Bond, right? No. The Bond franchise is now an anaemic vessel built on a legend so tightly wrapped in its own world that it is judged only by its own incestuous standards.
I can remember some incredible moments in Bond movies over the years – some of the greatest in film history – Sean Connery’s vicious train fight in From Russia With Love, Roger Moore saving the girl from the burning building while Duran Duran plays in View to a Kill (not to mention the performances of Christopher Walken and Grace Jones), the alligators and the speedboat chase in Live and Let Die, and the ski chase in The Spy Who Loved Me which ends with Bond skiing off a cliff and opening a union jack parachute.
Most of all, the best of the Bond movies had atmosphere (the New Orleans voodoo of Live and Let Die); they had tension (the tarantula in Doctor No); and they had invention (the card game in Goldfinger, the underwater battle in Thunderball, and the sinister hitmen Mr Wint and Mr Kidd in Diamonds Are Forever, to name a few). With these films they were creating the scenes that would later become clichés because they were that good, that clever. Now it only parodies itself.
And this is the problem: Bond in the 21st century is all too self-aware. It has given up trying to create fresh brilliant cinema in favour of some sort of misplaced loyalty to the same tropes. It is a form of arrogance which hit maximum velocity in Skyfall when the old Aston Martin appeared.
You may say this is an innocent tribute to an icon. But once a script begins to include its own legend the narrative is corrupted – the main character has somehow crossed over a metaphysical line and is now sat with the audience, in on the same joke. Please, for the love of god, just tell the story! It’s offensive to the audience, who time and again trustingly suspend their disbelief - this was an abuse of that trust.
Now I don’t mind that Bond always takes on the world and wins, always plays the maverick, usually ends up at the bad guy’s lair who explains the plan to him before trying to kill him. I believe the films might benefit from avoiding the last of those, but I don’t mind it, I accept it. But within that structure there has to be invention and tension and good dialogue.
Both Skyfall and Spectre fail on all three counts. Spectre includes two of the most clichéd lines in action movie history “I’m your best chance of staying alive” and “I think you’re just getting started”; a jarringly clumsy transition between a violent train fight and a love scene; a car chase completely devoid of invention or risk; and an exploding-watch trick used to escape the bad guy. It is lazy, lazy, lazy.
Then there is the lack of tension. In Skyfall all the agents are put in jeopardy when their identities are stolen, but we are never shown a poor agent being exposed – we are not made to care so it is rendered almost meaningless. Perhaps more importantly, we never believe Bond is really in danger because he increasingly flings himself into situations without any calculation. In Spectre he needlessly jumps into a helicopter to wrestle a bad guy and at the same time tries to kill the pilot. Later he purposely crashes his small plane (while he is still in it) into a convoy of 4x4s.
In the old days risk-taking had, at least some, consequences. If he’s wrestling in a helicopter it’s because he’s forced into it. If we see a character consistently taking ridiculous risks for no really good reason and still coming out of it fine, then we stop worrying for him. No tension. In the final cliffhanger of Spectre, Waltz looks as bored as I was watching Craig trying to escape a building about to be demolished.
The effect of all this is that those entrusted with the Bond institution have re-educated the audience into believing this is all we should expect: unoriginal plots full of sex, guns and explosions - Michael Bay with a touch of British cool and a Vodka Martini. Whole generations of people now judge the franchise by a lesser standard of filmmaking and this is sad.
What annoys me most is that Sam Mendes (someone who you would think would know better) and his team are in a privileged position. Plenty of people would love the job of plotting a Bond movie and yet we’re served up with this. The kick in the balls? In an age when austerity is biting, around $300 million was spent on this, making it one of the most expensive films of all time.
Ok ok it wasn’t all bad – Daniel Craig has his usual charisma, Christoph Waltz is naturally engaging, the love interest Lea Seydoux is a perfect mixture of hard-edged and exotic allure and Ralph Fiennes is great as M but even he finds himself undermined by being asked to deliver the worst closing line in film history – “You are now under arrest under the terrorism act of 2006”.
Once again reviewers seem to be partaking in the mass delusion of Skyfall, when the tributes were so universally glowing that I began to wonder whether there was some sort of conspiracy between producers and media. I don’t enjoy being critical of movies - making one must be incredibly difficult. I just want to see a Bond that goes back to creating the tropes – not re-serving us the same stale bread then telling us it is fresh. Why? Because Bond matters. It has become part of the British psyche and one of our defining elements (see Olympic opening ceremony). So an unoriginal, guileless, vacant film becomes a reflection of us and perversely the creators are being applauded for it.